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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Henri Matisse. Masque au petit nez (Mask with Small Nose), 1948. Aquatint on paper. Sheet: 25 1/2 x 19 3/4 inches (64.8 x 50.2 cm).  Image: 17 x 15 5/8 inches (43.2 x 34.6 cm). (c)2020 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery.


In our current troubling and depressing time, I'm so glad that Kasmin has mounted "Henri Matisse: Matisse in Black and White" (through December 19).This is a modest, non-commercial show of only 23 black-and-white paintings, drawings, and prints, together with 1 color print, 2 small black sculptures and three bound volumes, but it still serves admirably to remind us all over again of just why we love Matisse.


Today, we tend to forget that, in 1913, at the original Armory Show, Matisse upset critics – and the public – even more than Duchamp or cubism.  When the show reached Chicago, art students burned four of his paintings in effigy.


His offense, as I see it, was to present recognizable versions of familiar subjects, especially female nudes.  They differed radically only in style -- so viewers could tell how far he'd departed from the old norms.


Better remembered is his own assessment of his approach: "I dream of an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue."


This show is as soothing, calming and relaxing as art can be for a properly educated 21st century mental worker.


Of course, when we think of Matisse, we think first in terms of his mastery of color, from the days when he was known as a Fauvist on to his final career in cutouts.   But if there's a moral to this show it's that -- in addition to being a magical colorist -- he was a master draftsman as well.


I, being naturally contrary, went around the show in the opposite direction from the checklist, starting by turning right instead of left at the entrance.  Thus I was first confronted with a wall showing six images of female nudes, bookended on the right by a color page from "Jazz" and on the left by the image of a female head.


I mused on why I don't find Matisse nudes sexist, even when they portray women in twisted or contorted poses -- as several of them do so here.  I can only say what I get from them is a unique (and charmingly inoffensive) combination of lust – and respect.


The wall facing the entrance is all windows, so turning from the wall to the right of the entrance to the wall opposite, I saw it dominated by 5 still lifes of fruit and/or flowers, 3 large and 2 small. They are every bit as graceful as the nudes. 


To the right of this line-up are three more images of women.  One is in a floral blouse, one has a mysterious smile, and one is only a head, floating gamely but effectively on a large & otherwise empty page.  It's titled "Masque au petit nez (Mask with Small Nose),"  and although it's only an aquatint, it reproduces better in this website's modest format than any of the more ambitious works in this appealing show.


The last wall (with the entrance door in it to the left) is dominated by three self-portraits.  One is an etching and shows Matisse busy etching, one ink on paper has him wearing a cap, and the third and largest (in charcoal) is simply titled, "Grand Autoportrait (Large Self-Portrait)." 


Keeping company with these three on the same wall are two women in fancy costumes and a leaf design, titled "Cinéraire maritime (Silver Ragwort)."  This last is only a single leaf, but what elegance and class the artist was able to imbue it with!


PS.  This gallery is currently open Tuesday through Saturday, 12 to 5.  Reservations, they say, are required, and it's best to make one (at their website).  However if you just turn up and the gallery's not too crowded, they may let you in -- and  few if indeed any of the Chelsea galleries are very crowded these days....PH



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